Lenin on the Train

by Catherine Merridale

March 29, 2017

“The masses must always be told the whole truth, the unvarnished truth, without fearing that the truth will frighten them away.”—N. K. Krupskaya

It was Thomas Cook who said it. There are three places in the world that anyone who claims to be a global traveller really must see. The desert citadel of Timbuktu is one of them, another is the old city of Samarkand. The third is a small town in Sweden. A hundred and fifty years ago, it may have been the Northern Lights that drew Cook up to Haparanda. The locals boasted of pirates, too, but every harbour round that coast claimed to have those. Perhaps what really did the trick was the report of a man in a swirling coat, a magic healer, skilled with herbs, who flew above the Arctic night like a great bird.

It was not simply that the small town was remote. The place was thrilling, dangerous, right at the end of the known world. Haparanda is situated at the apex of the Gulf of Bothnia, the sea that separates Sweden’s northern territories from Finland. The area is dominated by a river delta, and at one time the town encompassed a string of low-lying islands as well as some more solid ground towards the west. Other settlements sprang up along the waterside, including a much larger town called Tornio, but life for everyone meant sharing: hunting the region’s winter game, taking cattle to pasture on the nearby hills and wading out in the brief thaws to catch the eels that flashed between the floating mats of reed.

The population had nothing much in common with Stockholm (most people spoke a local patois), but the whole zone was part of Sweden until the early nineteenth century. In 1809, however, a treaty concluded at the end of one of Russia’s many wars with the Swedes decreed that the eastern bank of the river, including the busiest central island, should be transferred to the Grand Duchy of Finland, a territory that the Russians had just snatched for their empire. Marooned on the Swedish bank, Haparanda faced its bigger sister, Tornio, across the river. The two of them were now estranged.

From the moment of its creation, the border never felt entirely safe. The Swedish government could not forget that Russia had ambitions to expand. When vast reserves of iron ore were discovered at Kiruna, less than 300 miles to the north-west, investors in Stockholm were forced to curb their plans for a new railway out of fear that Haparanda might become a gateway for some fresh wave of invading Russian hordes. Sweden’s age of steam was at its height, but as the lines reached on, like nerve pathways, towards the north, no track was laid to Haparanda. In summer, when the hunters’ sledges could no longer cross the ice, the only solid link to Finland was a wooden bridge.

What changed things was the First World War. The great powers of Europe’s Atlantic coast, Britain and France, were allied with the Russian empire now. They needed to send people back and forth, and they had also agreed to provide the Russians with vital war materials, with fuses and precision sights, but direct contact between west and east was blocked. The routes through Germany were shut, of course, and where they were not packed with mines the sea-lanes in the North Sea and the Baltic were patrolled by submarines. Only the land-based route through northern Sweden was viable, albeit gruelling and remote. Thomas Cook died in 1892. If he had thought that Haparanda was exotic once, he should have seen it in 1917.

The rail link was completed in 1915. It was only a branch line, single track, and engines had to steam down from Karungi, some way to the north. Although the route was now an artery for vital wartime trade, the line still stopped short of Finland itself, whose railways (like all those that Russia controlled) used a different gauge in any case. Because the two sides had remained so nervous of each other, everything (including passengers) had to be unloaded at Haparanda station, ferried across the river, hauled up the high bank opposite and reloaded on Russian trains. In winter, sledges dragged by reindeer or stout little horses plied the route; in summer, every boat that could be found was busy on the water.

The bottleneck was clumsy, a time-consuming irritation, but Haparanda was set for a boom. Together with its sister on the Finnish side, it soon became the busiest commercial crossing-point in Europe. Where local herdsmen had once been the only drinkers, the small town’s bars now swelled with hustlers, spivs and the secret policemen whose lives slipped by as they observed them. The rooms in the only hotel were booked up for the diplomats and politicians, mainly British, French and Russian, who suddenly began to pass through town. They did not like the climate or the tedious slow trains, but there were no easier options left.

Wartime photographs from the local museum show creatures who might well be from another world. Stiff, corseted and alien, they look outlandish in their uniforms, their gold braid and a range of feathered hats. Today, the landscape bears no trace whatever of their ghosts. The twin towns on the Tornionjoki have combined—the tourist guidebooks talk about ‘HaTo’—and you can stroll from Sweden into Finland and back by crossing the square outside the shopping mall.1 The Finnish part is permanently one hour ahead of the Swedes, which complicates the bus timetable, but the usual border annoyances—passports, customs, traffic queues—have all been smoothed out like crisp euro notes. The only monument of any size is a massive dark-blue box, the world’s largest Ikea store. In April, it is surrounded by a wasteland of oily puddles and filthy heaps of gritty snow, but when that melts the car park will be full. The Russians are still coming, then, as well as Finns and reindeer-herders from Lapland. The man whose story I am here to tell would certainly have understood. He wrote a lot about world trade. He also crossed this river on the ice. It was a journey that changed the world.


In April 1917, at the height of the First World War, the exiled leader of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, travelled back to Russia by train. Before the year was out he had become the master of a revolutionary new state. Lenin’s ultimate achievement was to turn ideas that Karl Marx had outlined on paper forty years before into an ideology of government. He created a Soviet system that ruled in the name of working people, ordering the redistribution of wealth and sponsoring equally radical transformations in culture and social relations. Lenin’s programme offered hope and dignity to many of his country’s poor, not least by granting an unprecedented measure of equality to women. Among the costs were countless human lives, beginning with tens of thousands of murders in Lenin’s lifetime. Some died for no crime more heinous than their possession of a pair of spectacles. Over the seven decades of the Soviet Union’s existence the number of its guiltless victims would rise to the low millions. At the same time, its practical, unsentimental advocacy of the dispossessed established Leninism as a blueprint for revolutionary parties from China and Vietnam to the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean. The starting-point for all these things, from infant Soviet state to world Cold War, was that momentous wartime ride.

Lenin was in Switzerland when the story began. Condemned to exile by the tsarist courts, the Bolshevik leader was safe enough in his new home, but he was endlessly impatient to see the revolution that he had been forecasting for more than twenty years. Like many socialists, he expected it to begin somewhere in western Europe, but the early months of 1917 brought news of large-scale protests in the Russian capital, Petrograd. That shock had barely been absorbed when the world learned that the tsar had abdicated. On the eve of the campaigning season, with plans afoot for a major offensive in the west, the future of the Russian empire was suddenly uncertain. In Petrograd, the people cheered. Their country had become a republic, at least until a constitution was approved.

Like almost every Russian exile, Lenin was delighted when he heard this news. As the leader of Russia’s most militant revolutionary party, his first priority was to get home. The trouble was that he was trapped. Neither Britain nor France was inclined to assist with his travel plans. They knew him as a fierce opponent of the war, and their entire diplomatic effort was focused on persuading Russia, free or not, to keep on fighting so that they could win. This unhelpful position left only one route for Lenin to take. It involved catching a train through Germany, crossing to Sweden by ferry, and continuing north to the border at Haparanda. The problem there was Germany itself, for its army had been butchering Russian soldiers in their hundreds of thousands on the eastern front since 1914. Lenin’s dilemma looked unresolvable. To go through Germany was treachery, to stay in Switzerland was to ignore the call for which he had been waiting all his life.

Lenin, naturally, chose the first. What made it possible was the unexpected co-operation of the German High Command. The stalemate in the trenches had forced all Europe’s major powers to search for ways of gaining an advantage somewhere other than the battlefield. By 1917, a small group of officials inside the German foreign ministry had come to favour the idea of using insurgents to destabilize their enemies. They sponsored military mutineers in France, they armed the Irish nationalists and dreamed of sparking a rebellion on the borders of India. When Lenin’s name was recommended, they were quick to grasp his potential for disrupting Russia’s war effort. If all went well, and the German army took the opportunity to land a truly crushing blow against Britain and France, they would not need his help for long.

With that delightful thought in mind, German officials saw no difficulty in arranging for the Bolshevik leader’s safe transport across their country, even acceding to his request that the carriage transporting his group be treated as an extra-territorial entity, sealed off from the surrounding world and therefore innocent of any contact with the enemy population. More controversially, they also organized financial backing—the infamous ‘German gold’—for some of his revolutionary operations. The French and British knew about the journey, and though they found it hard to separate the rumours from the facts, Lenin’s reputation gave them ample cause for alarm. Some even urged that he be stopped, perhaps in Sweden’s Arctic woods. When the time came, however, no one was willing to accept responsibility and shoot.

It was a story that might easily have come from the pen of John Buchan. Only a few months previously, indeed, Buchan had published a spy-thriller, Greenmantle, whose eponymous villain also preached against the wartime British and their friends. Greenmantle’s home was not Russia (Buchan opted to use the Middle East), but the plot depended on a special agent’s willingness to cross the whole of Germany to get to him. ‘I had expected a big barricade and barbed wire with entrenchments,’ the hero, Richard Hannay, explains in the book. ‘But there was nothing to see on the German side but half a dozen sentries in . . . field grey. We were all shepherded into a big bare waiting-room where a large stove burned. They took us two at a time into an inner room for examination . . . They made us strip to the skin . . . The men who did the job were fairly civil, but they were mighty thorough.’2 Lenin was to suffer this ordeal in real life, and the location was the customs house in Tornio. While a group of sceptical Russian border guards looked on, moreover, the person who was being mighty thorough was a British officer.

The journey ended at the Finland Station in Petrograd. A triumphant Lenin, barely showing strain after his eight-day ride, stepped through the ranks of his adoring followers and on to change the course of Russia’s history for ever. The Bolsheviks created an admiring myth based on the tale, but the most memorable verdict was passed by Winston Churchill. ‘Full allowance must be made for the desperate stakes to which the German war leaders were already committed,’ he commented in retrospect. ‘Nevertheless it was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.’ 3

The ‘truck’, in fact, was not exactly sealed; the trackside doors were seldom locked and people did get on and off. The journey was also much tougher than Churchill’s words suggest. It took the Russians three whole days to cross Germany, and for that time they could not buy a meal, let alone step out to stretch their legs. If they slept at all, it was in their packed hard-class compartments, heads lolling on their neighbours’ chests, dreams perfumed with stale bread and socks. The idea of a bacillus, however, is something that I recognize at once. Just as the First World War gave rise to great intrigues, there have been many global games—diplomatic, economic and military—in my lifetime.

There is almost as much instability across the planet now as there once was in Lenin’s day, and a slightly different collection of great powers is still working hard to make sure that they stay on top. One technique that they use in regional conflicts, since direct military engagement tends to cost too much, is to help and finance local rebels, some of whom are on the ground, but some of whom must be dropped in exactly as Lenin was. I think of South America in the 1980s, of all the dirty wars in Central Asia since that time. I shudder at the current conflicts in the Arab world. The history of Lenin’s train is not exclusively the property of the Soviets. In part, it is a parable about great-power intrigue, and one rule there is that great powers almost always get things wrong.

1 In principle, anyway. In the autumn of 2015, when Finnish nationalists began a general panic about the numbers of new migrants that might flood through from Haparanda, sporadic border controls resumed.
2 John Buchan, Greenmantle (London, 1916), Chapter 3
3 F. W. Heath (ed.), Great Destiny: Sixty Years of the Memorable Events in the Life of the Man of the Century Recounted in his own Incomparable Words (New York, 1965), pp. ­388–­9


Copyright © 2017 by Catherine Merridale. Excerpted and edited from Lenin on the Train.

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Catherine Merridale is the author of Red Fortress, which won the Wolfson History Prize; and the critically acclaimed books, Ivan’s War and Night of Stone. A celebrated scholar of Russian history, she has also written for The Guardian, the Literary Review, and the London Review of Books, and contributes regularly to broadcasts on BBC radio. She lives in Oxfordshire, England.